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Today Caloriegate is excited to bring you an exclusive interview with a rising star in the world of online health/fitness writing, Armistead Legge, a self-declared “entrepreneur, writer, personal trainer, research analyst, and sponsored triathlete.”
Armi works with Dave Asprey of The Bulletproof Executive blogging about diet, health, biohacking, crazy power-coffee, and other fascinating stuff.
When you read his stuff and chat with him, it’s hard to believe he’s still a teenager. Holy Prodigy, Batman!
We do part ways when it comes to the whole calories issue. But in any event, I’m guessing you’ll find his story and perspective quite compelling.
Welcome Armi! And thanks for doing this interview.
You had a long, strange journey into the realm of health and fitness journalism. Would you briefly talk about your experience — how you came to believe what you currently believe about health and fitness?
I’ve always been interested in health and fitness from an early age. My dad has been doing triathlons for over 30 years, and I started doing them when I was eight. I began experimenting with different foods and training methods to improve my performance.
I did my best to follow the current health recommendations, but I wasn’t pleased with the results. I have never been over 12% body fat, but I knew I could be leaner and recover faster.
I’ve always tried to be an objective person, and there were too many contradictions coming from mainstream health authorities. I don’t like to compromise on my health. I was told saturated fat was bad, so I stopped eating it. The same was true for red meat. I was told saturated fat was okay in moderation, but “moderation” isn’t an objective value.
I am an all or nothing person. I tend to see things in black and white. This isn’t always a good thing. I became obsessed with calories and developed an eating disorder. I restricted food to the point that I almost died – twice. Before being admitted to the hospital, I was 5’8, and 92 pounds, with a heart rate of 32 beats per minute. I could barely walk.
I was placed in a rehab facility at John’s Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Maryland. What commenced was the worst experience of my life. The doctors at John’s Hopkins were ignorant to almost all research regarding nutrition. They used a meal program based on the American Diabetic Association’s guidelines. You were required to eat a cretin number of servings of different foods based on their glycemic index and carbohydrate content. Chocolate pudding was a “meat.” Coca-Cola was a “fruit.” Peanut butter was a “meat.” Most of the calories came from bread – lots of bread. Butter was replaced with margarine because it was “heart healthy.”
Movement of any kind was also forbidden. I was required to sit in a chair 16 hours a day.
No attention was paid to food quality. There were times when I would go over a week without a single fresh fruit or vegetable. When I asked about getting my blood tested for nutrient deficiencies, I was punished because they said I was being obsessive.
I was only allowed to drink 24 ounces of water each day with meals (you should drink to thirst, but the minimum general recommendation is around 128 ounces from food and drink). Needless to say, I got dehydrated. Instead of letting me drink more, they shoved an IV in my arm for three weeks.
Just as there was no attention paid to food quality, none was paid to the quality of weight gained. Your total weight was all that mattered, not your body composition. Being a thirteen year old kid, this wasn’t as much of an issue. I have never been fat, and I stayed fairly lean through the entire process. Others weren’t so lucky. People with over 30% body fat were considered healthy because they were a “normal” weight.
I trusted the doctors at first. I went home and followed their guidelines, but I felt depressed, weak, lethargic, and had horrible anxiety and anger. I was miserable, and ended up starving myself again. I was forced back into the hospital.
This time I spent every waking second doing my own research on PubMed. I had a lot of free time, so I would sometimes do over 8 hours of research each day. I think it’s fair to say I knew more about nutrition than any of the doctors in that hospital.
When I came home, I started implementing what I learned. I stopped eating grains, legumes, and processed dairy. I started optimizing macronutrients to fit my goals. I had never heard of the paleo diet at that time, but that’s basically what I was eating.
My current beliefs are a reflection of the research. I looked at the data, started experimenting, and came to my own conclusions. I was exposed to the most irrational and ridiculous kind of treatment, and responded by being as rational and objective as possible. It’s worked well so far.
I continued to do my own research and refine my ideas. Now I get paid to do research.
How did you meet Dave Asprey and get involved with The Bulletproof Executive? What about his work and his approach inspired you?
I started blogging about what I had learned in December of 2010. I decided to become a writer because that was the best medium to share my information. By this point I was already determined to become a health consultant. I started interviewing experts on my podcast, and invited Dave on for the second episode. We started talking, and in the next few days he asked if I would be interested in working as a researcher and writer for his blog, The Bulletproof Executive. I said yes.
Dave came from a similar background as me. He was 300 pounds, obese, felt sick all the time, and was in awful health. He was doing what his doctors said and it wasn’t working. He started hacking his body and doing his own research to find solutions. What attracted me was his focus on brain function. No one in the blogosphere was or is talking about ways to make your brain work better – except Dave. In terms of diet, he focuses more on food quality and toxin exposure than other health writers, especially mycotoxins. He’s also a coffee nerd, like me.
Dave is a great guy to work with and we have a lot of fun.
Which diet/exercise/bio-hacking insight has given you the most leverage and results?
The best supplements: Hydrolyzed collagen protein and Bulletproof Upgraded Coffee Beans.
Brain hacking software: Bulletproof i3 Mindware training.
Top overall biohack: HeartMath emWave training.
Top exercise biohack: Reverse Pyramid weight training.
Diet: Nothing has changed since meeting Dave, but I made several large changes beforehand. The greatest thing that changed my performance and health was optimizing my micronutrient status. I started taking the right supplements, avoiding grains and other substances which interfere with nutrient absorption, and eating grass-fed meat. I recover faster, feel better, and never get sick.
What’s your favorite part about helping people get healthy?
There are two things. The first reason is selfish. I do it so I can spend my time researching and testing methods for health improvement on myself, and then being able to make money by helping others do the same. I would be doing what I do now whether I got paid or not. By charging others for my services, I can make it a sustainable practice.
The second reason is about improving the lives of others. What I do makes people better at everything, and allows them to avoid problems most people have to deal with. Being healthy allows you to not take sick days, be more focused and productive, have more confidence, think clearer, interact with others more effectively, and get dates. Health is the foundation for all actions and thoughts. Without health, you can’t think or act. If you don’t agree, find someone dying of heart disease and obesity and tell me they couldn’t accomplish more if they were healthier.
For people who’ve already bought into the low carb/Paleo message… What biohacks should they explore to get even better results?
There are several:
Stress management. This is probably the most underrated of all health topics. Once you’ve optimized your diet, stress should be next on the list.
Sleep. Most people don’t get enough total sleep, or high quality sleep. Many people start eating right and get frustrated when they aren’t making progress. They don’t lose weight or fat. Then they start sleeping 8 hours a night and everything changes. They get leaner, their recovery improves, and their performance goes through the roof. Sleep matters.
Weight training. Every human on earth should be lifting heavy weights on a regular basis, excluding people who have some illness that precludes them from doing so. You will feel stronger, more confident, and live longer by lifting weights.
Supplementation. It’s almost impossible to get all of your nutrition form food. A recent analysis published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found you would have to eat 33,500 calories a day to meet all of your micronutrient needs if you were following a diet very similar to the one recommended by the USDA.1 Following the Atkins diet, you would have to eat 37,500 calories a day. On average, you would have to eat 27,575 calories a day to meet your nutrient requirements. This is assuming the RDI is high enough for all nutrients (it isn’t). The best way to increase nutrient intake is to eat beef liver and avoid foods which block nutrient absorption (like whole meal products). Even then, a little supplementation is necessary.
Play. The purpose of life is to enjoy yourself. If you aren’t spending at least one hour a day doing something you absolutely love – something is wrong.
Have any of your biohacks backfired; and, if so, what were the results?
Massively restricting calories to improve performance almost killed me – twice.
I tried polyphasic sleep last summer in the middle of triathlon season. My performance, recovery, and mood were destroyed. Kids and athletes should never restrict sleep if they have the choice.
To what degree do you think we can blame carbs and sugar on obesity and chronic disease? What other factors are important and may be crucial to “count”?
We can’t. I don’t agree with Taubes and others that carbs and sugar are to blame. There are numerous randomized controlled trials* showing that macronutrients have virtually no effect on total weight loss in the long term.2–17
When researchers pooled the data, there was absolutely no difference in weight loss or energy expenditure between high carb or low carb diets.18,19
Ensuring the person consumes adequate protein prevents almost all muscle loss, but in terms of total weight loss – it doesn’t matter. There is no metabolic advantage of removing carbs or gorging on protein.
This isn’t to say low carb diets don’t work. A large body of research shows restricting carbohydrates has beneficial effects on triglyceride levels, HDL-C, insulin sensitivity, and glucose control on obese or sedentary people.20–22
Low carb diets tend to do better in the first six months, which would also provide much needed motivation.23 No diet works if you don’t stick with the program, and fast results are likely to improve adherence.
There is also a wide variation in how certain people respond to different dietary treatments. People with poor insulin sensitivity often experience greater weight loss on low carb diets, and people with better insulin sensitivity experience greater weight loss on low carb diets.23
A caloric deficit is necessary for weight loss. That said, I think telling people to simply move more and exercise less is ridiculous. People just don’t do it, and for obese people, exercise makes a very small contribution to weight loss. You have to provide strategies which make a caloric deficit easier.
The best research I’ve seen so far on this problem is from Stephan Guyenet. He’s written the finest compilation of evidence behind something called the Food Reward Theory of Obesity. Basically, that excessive reward from food (taste, feelings, texture, smell, color, etc) all contribute to overeating. This is supported by dozens of papers, and the simple observation that hyper-palatable food is easier to overeat. No one eats 5000 calories worth of steak. Almost everyone can eat 5000 calories worth of cheesecake. If this doesn’t make sense, Richard Nikoley recently published a very simple description of this idea.
I think you can still blame some of the obesity and poor health in this country on sugar and carbs, but they aren’t the sole cause. They’re easy to overeat and readily available. However, it comes down to self restraint if you want to avoid them. There are almost infinite contributors to obesity, but several stand out as being more important than others.
Lack of sleep
Lack of proper exercise and movement
Food exposure and abundance
Environmental toxins like xenoestrogens (BPA, mycotoxins).
Lack of play and joy.
Another contributor to obesity is government intervention. Subsidies support foods which make people sick and fat, then people are told to eat less and move more with poor suggestions for how to do so. The government also subsidizes drugs which give people a false sense of security, and in some cases damage their health even more. They also subsidize and support wheat, corn, soybeans, feed-lots, and pretty much everything else junk food is made of. People often ask how junk food can be so cheap. The truth is it wouldn’t be without subsidies from the government. To top it off, they are making things like raw milk illegal, and grass-fed meat almost impossible to buy. To quote Robb Wolf, “Whether the government comes with a firing squad or dietary advice, the result is always the same.”
What’s the biggest myth about healthy living that trips up people who have already bought into the low carb / Paleo message?
There are three mistakes I see people making more than any other.
1. The idea that studies can “prove” anything.
This is something people often say when confronted with overwhelming evidence that goes against their views. Instead of acknowledging it might be time to change their minds, they attempt the discredit the research by saying, in essence, that you can’t prove anything.
It’s true that you can manipulate almost any study to show a certain viewpoint, but this doesn’t make it fact (see Denise Minger’s debunking of the China study, or the latest study on red meat).
When you take an objective look at the data, truths become more apparent. There are no contradictions in science. There are contradictions in how we perceive the evidence. This doesn’t mean we have everything figured out. It means there are objective truths that we are capable of discovering through research, and when enough critical thinking is performed, these truths become apparent.
If anyone is interested in more on this topic, Jeff Thibotot (doingspeed.com) wrote a post about this on January 24th.
2. Disregarding everything someone has to say because you don’t agree with them.
It’s okay to disagree. Too often, we stop listening to smart people because we don’t agree with everything they say. One example is Gary Taubes. The first half of Good Calories Bad Calories is one of the best debunkings of the lipid hypothesis ever written, the last half of his book (on carbs and insulin) was less well done. I don’t agree with everything he says, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good source of information on some topics.
Alan Aragon is another great example. He is easily one of the best (and most underrated) researchers in the blogosphere (and elsewhere). His research review is one of the greatest sources of information available. That said, I don’t agree with him that grains are an acceptable food source or that most people can meet their micronutrient needs eating a balanced diet, or that saturated fat is a health risk. It’s okay to disagree. There’s not need to “pick sides” when it comes to writers and distributors of information.
3. That being rational means blindly following conventional wisdom.
There is this horrible idea that a rational person is someone who only believes mainstream health dogma and only takes advice from people with “MD” after their name. You might hear people say, “some of my friends really get the whole paleo or low carb thing, but the rational ones think it’s all bogus.” Rational thought means basing your decisions on facts which were determined by logic. Any time you stop thinking rationally, you start making bad decisions.
This is more of a psychological/philosophical mistake rather than something small like macronutrient ratios. Irrational thinking is what gave us the diet heart hypothesis, statin drugs, and subsidies for grains. All myths are based on irrationality, so by eliminating irrationality and thinking clearly – you stop getting confused by myths.
Eating paleo and/or low carb is rational if you believe the benefits outweigh the negatives. If it doesn’t make any difference for you, don’t change what you’re doing.
Imagine for a minute: your mission succeeds beyond your wildest imagination. What would the world look like? What would be different?
Personally, I would be living in a house somewhere near a river with mountains, a collection of farm animals, barbells, a shed full of bikes, tons of money, and the government would let businesses function without restrictions (laissez-faire capitalism). In terms of health…
The people who listen to my advice would be healthier, smarter, and better at everything they do. They would be happy with themselves and thinking rationally. This is already happening, so now it’s a matter of expanding.
If you had to boil your message about healthy living down to one short sentence, what would it be?
* Randomized controlled trials are the only study worth looking at in this regard, as self reported or free living studies are far too inaccurate to produce valid results. Rat studies don’t count either.
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2. Stern L, Iqbal N, Seshadri P, et al. The effects of low-carbohydrate versus conventional weight loss diets in severely obese adults: one-year follow-up of a randomized trial. Annals of internal medicine. 2004;140(10):778-85. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15148064. Accessed March 19, 2012.
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19. Buchholz AC, Schoeller DA. Is a calorie a calorie? The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2004;79(5):899S-906S. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15113737. Accessed March 19, 2012.
20. Samaha FF, Foster GD, Makris AP. Low-carbohydrate diets, obesity, and metabolic risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Current atherosclerosis reports. 2007;9(6):441-7. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18377783. Accessed March 19, 2012.
21. Volek JS, Sharman MJ, Forsythe CE. Modification of Lipoproteins by Very Low-Carbohydrate Diets. J. Nutr. 2005;135(6):1339-1342. Available at: http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/abstract/135/6/1339. Accessed March 19, 2012.
22. Feinman RD, Volek JS. Carbohydrate restriction as the default treatment for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Scandinavian cardiovascular journal : SCJ. 2008;42(4):256-63. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18609058. Accessed March 19, 2012.
23. Feinman RD, Fine EJ. Thermodynamics and metabolic advantage of weight loss diets. Metabolic syndrome and related disorders. 2003;1(3):209-19. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18370664. Accessed March 19, 2012.